Giving Futurism a Bad Name

Next 100 Years George Freeman

When a major publisher publishes a book by an author whose book jacket describes him as “a renowned expert in geopolitics and forecasting,” one might be expected to take it seriously.  Indeed, George Friedman’s The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century was dutifully reviewed by mainstream reviewers as such when Doubleday released it last year. 

Alas, this book is one of the silliest and most preposterous excuses for chopping down trees I have seen in a long time.

Suggesting likely scenarios a generation ahead, based on facts, trends, historic patterns and probabilities, can be a useful exercise. Witness books like Alvin Toffler’s The Third Wave and Future Shock.  While there will invariably be misjudgments, it makes sense to think about how developments in demographics, economics, culture/religion, military capabilities, technology, the environment, and so forth might result in plausible future scenarios just over the horizon, say 5, 10  — even 20 — years ahead.

But to purport to paint a picture of not possible scenarios that current dynamics might produce, but rather, how the world will look a century hence is highly suspect to begin with. This book seeks to prove that great American sage, Yogi Berra, wrong when he famously observed that, “Predictions are hard, especially about the future.”

The world is so complex, with so many moving parts and so many uncertainties that unless one has a time machine, it is truly a fool’s errand to pretend insight into events 100 years hence. Who in 1940 would have believed you if you said that we would put a man on the moon in the next 30 years? Or how who in 1890 would have taken you seriously if you said in the next 60 years: horses would be obsolete as sources of transport, most people would have automobile machines able to drive 90 miles an hour, we would have two world wars killing nearly 100 million, we would have electronic communication able to talk to anyone anywhere in the world instantaneously, we would have airplanes able to reach any corner of the globe in less than 24 hours, and so forth?

Who even in 1985 would have forecast a collapse of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe in the next 5-6 years? How about a ubiquitous and wireless internet, cellphones in every corner of the globe, the iPod, and  MySpace, Facebook and global social networking?

Some Crystal Ball

But such uncertainties do not phase the author, George Friedman, head of the private consulting firm StratFor. After all, this is the same clairvoyant who wrote a book in 1991  (I’m not making this up) called The Coming War With Japan, which told us that the Japan’s remarkable post-WWII economic dynamism would lead to a US war against its closest Asian ally. And never mind that as the book hit the streets, Japan’s bubble had already burst, leaving it with more than a decade of economic stagnation.  

But compared to his latest book, the Japan forecast was a modest prediction. The landscape Friedman offers for this century includes:

  • China facing economic turbulence and resultant political crises leading to it breaking up and fragmenting in this decade;
  •   Russia breaking up in the 2020’s;
  •   Europe, about whose future there is a paucity of detail, devolves into a collection of nation-states, whose demographics drive their decline;
  • By the 2050s, the major global powers are Poland, Turkey and Japan (for which demographic decline more pronounced than Europe apparently doesn’t matter);
  • Through it all, the United States is more buoyant than ever, and is the assertive, predominant global actor in every measure of power: economics (never mind that we are the world’s largest debtor), military, and technology;
  • Mexico rises as a major global industrial power challenging the U.S. with confrontation and possible war over efforts to regain parts of the Western U.S. lost in the 1840’s.

These are just a few highlights. The book is replete with high-tech space wars from rival bases on the moon, solar energy beamed from space (which is actually an idea some physicists advocate), and remarkably, hardly a hint of global warming, pandemics, chaos in Third World megacities, or environmental degradation.

Back to the Future

As fantastic as the broad sweep of Friedman’s global future may be, no less are the playing out of geopolitical dynamics presented.  Poland, Turkey, Japan are locked in a classic 19th century struggle for control of Eurasia, a scenario that appears right out of the theory of the renowned British geographer and theorist Sir Harold Mackinder. Will old-fashioned wars over real estate, empire and occupation of territory, in an information age of ethnic/nationalist identity really be the way great powers compete in 2080? Difficult to imagine.

But borrowing Mackinder’s geographic determinism is just the beginning.  Ironically the book portrays Turkey as more or less recreating the Ottoman Empire as the kingpin of the Islamic world, with 2053 looking a lot its predecessor 600 years earlier,  with Turkey confronting Poland for control of Eastern Europe. And it gets better. Japan, in this fairy tale occupies the Russian Far East and Eastern China in a quest for resources, the 1930s redux.

I guess it is a lot easier to look out 100 years when the future is so much a recycled version of the past. Of course, through all this, the U.S. maneuvers with weaker powers to balance against whichever appears to be ascending to the status of hegemon.   

One conclusion that seems inescapable: the great thing about being an intellectual in America is that there is never a price paid for being wrong. Indeed, a bit like the Big Lie, if you are audacious enough, you might even score a big book advance. Recall the book published in 1999, right beforethe crash, called Dow 36,000.

The sad thing is that such nonsense, this future shlock, gives sensible efforts at anticipating the shape of the world that may lie ahead a bad name.

Robert Manning is a senior advisor to the Atlantic Council.  The views expressed here are solely his own, not those of any U.S. government agency. Photo credit:

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